Pretty Dogface

As names go, Dogface is not a flattering one. Yet this rather derogatory name is given to an endearing shrub, Trichocephalus stipularis, which should be welcome in any garden. The unfortunate common name, Hondegesiggie in Afrikaans, is a reference to the fruiting heads. These apparently, though I don’t see it myself, have been likened to the face of a dog or baboon. If this is the case, I think it must be the rather malformed face of a bulldog or pug. The fruiting bodies of Trichocephalus stipularis consist of a furry swollen red 3-lobed capsule that when it dries splits into 3 chambers each releasing a single hard seed.

Trichocephalus stipularis (Rhamnaceae) fruit

Trichocephalus stipularis fruit supposedly looking like a dog's face

Trichocephalus stipularis (Rhamnaceae) flowers

Trichocephalus stipularis flowers open to show the pink inside the sepals

The generic name, Trichocephalus, comes from the Greek for “hairy head”. Indeed, the flowerheads are very woolly. The buds are completely covered in white hairs. It is only when the individual small flowers open that the pinkish inside of the sepals can be seen forming 5 narrow fingers. The petals themselves are tucked even deeper into the flower and less than half a millimetre long! You need a powerful hand lens to make them out.

The genus Trichocephalus is in the Rhamnaceae (Buckthorn Family) and used to be included within the large Cape genus Phylica (as Phylica stipularis). However, it was always recognised as distinct on account of it being the only species with two small brown stipules at the base of the each leaf (hence the species name “stipularis”). In all other species of Phylica the stipules were absent. Molecular work in 2001 suggested that Trichocephalus stipularis was more closely related to a recently extinct species from St Helena, Nesiota elliptica, than all the other South African species, it was therefore proposed to put it into its own genus. It is the only species in the genus (a term known as monotypic) and cannot be confused with any other species on account of the small brown stipules.

Tricocephalus stipularis and Phylica lasiocarpa stems compared

Tricocephalus stipularis (left) leaves showing thin brown stipules at base compared with Phylica lasiocarpa (right) leaves where they are absent

Trichocephalus stipularis (Rhamnaceae) shrub

A typical bush of Trichocephalus stipularis

Trichocephalus stipularis is a common shrub in fynbos on slightly richer shale soils. It is found through much of the Cape Floristic Region, from the northern Cederberg and Namaqualand, east as far as Knysna. It resprouts after fire and forms bushes up to 1m high. The white woolly heads of flowers appear in autumn and fill the air with a sweet scent. They are then followed by the rather unusual reddish fruit, which despite their common name still look attractive. It makes a fine garden plant, having a long season of interest, with the bonus of adding fragrance. Once established it is an easy plant, but propagation can be challenging. The seeds are hard and require soaking to encourage germination. Alternatively, cuttings from off the rootstock can be taken.

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